Dawidoff, who grew up in New Haven and returned to live there in middle age, has written a great American book. But I was 226 pages in, just over halfway, when I realized how great it was shaping up to be. The book takes a long time to go from 0 to 65. It’s bigger than it has to be, and it’s not a model of elegant design; it reminds me of my clunky 2004 minivan, roomy and comfy, with poor steering and iffy brakes, always a little out of control. But then again, I love my minivan ... When Johnson goes to prison, the book gets even better. Dawidoff’s portrait of prison life, its pointless mix of boredom, sadness and stress, is an important corrective to the more sensational television fare that has helped form my impressions, and maybe yours ... I wish Dawidoff had been content to write Johnson’s story. His confession, his brave recanting of that confession when asked to testify against his supposed accomplice (a friend every bit as innocent as Johnson), his incarceration, his troubled journey after getting out — it has the oomph of a classic American novel, one that sucker-punches you every time you remember that it’s all true ... But the first four chapters — lengthy ones — are given over to the story of Fields, the victim, and the history of the Great Migration.
Linking the ordinary nightmare of Newhallville to the greater national community, Dawidoff shows how Pete’s death, Bobby’s innocence, and Major’s lost potential all act as symbols for contemporary American society.
The text—compassionate, thoughtful, and thorough to a fault—is caught somewhat uncomfortably between a sociological study of the causes and results of racial division and a more straightforward narrative of Bobby's conviction, imprisonment, and bumpy reentry into society ... The author’s research and dedication to the project are clear, but the book would have benefitted from a stronger editorial hand. Readers anxious to get on with the story may get bogged down in the long account, drawing on Fields' sister's memoir, of his childhood in South Carolina. Certain chapters are not thoroughly integrated into the narrative structure. Overall, though, Dawidoff presents a compelling examination of a situation in which police officers eager to put another case in the 'solved' column ignored obvious evidence and coerced a teenager into a confession of a crime he didn't commit. Anyone with grand illusions about the American justice system will have lost them by the end ... An uneven but rigorously reported, urgent book.